On this Memorial Day weekend I’d like to tell you a bit about my grandpa and World War II. I have been reminded many times of late that there are fewer and fewer former soldiers of WWII still alive. I am one of those lucky grandchildren who still has his grandfather (and grandmother) alive and well and still working on the farm well into his 90’s. My grandpa has always been willing to share stories about nearly every aspect of his life. The one exception is WWII; however, there have been a few times when he was willing to talk about his experience in the Pacific during those years. Since the start of the Iraq war those occasions have become more frequent as he has clearly felt the need to share with his family the horror that is war.
My grandfather was born in Northwest Missouri to a German family made of men and women that worked the land. My grandpa’s youth was spent largely in what many of us would consider abject poverty. He was a child of the great depression and was forced to drop out of school at a very young age in order to help make a living for his large family. When WWII began, he either volunteered or was drafted into the army (he’s never really said which it was but it really doesn’t matter). He said goodbye to his sweetheart (my grandma) who promised to wait for him and he and a few hundred other young men from this sparsely populated farming area got shipped off to San Antonio,TX and then to El Paso, TX for basic training.
Following training, my grandpa was assigned to be a howitzer gunner and headed off to Australia to join US forces in the Pacific Ocean. He would spend the next four years of his life fighting the Japanese in the islands of the Pacific Ocean. My grandpa has always been willing to talk about his time in training. Aside from being sea-sick for nearly the entire long ride to Australia, he enjoyed the early days in the Army. I can only imagine that it was one of the first times in his life that he was guaranteed to have a regular meal. Moreover, he was used to back-breaking hard work so I imagine the rigors of basic training were nothing to him. All of this changed when he set off to join the fight in the Pacific.
From this point on, I know very little of what my grandpa went through in WWII. He has never told any of us the islands he was on. I assume this is because he knows we could learn about the horrors of the fighting on those islands. He has never said so much as a word about killing enemy soldiers. As a howitzer gunner we all knew what his job would have been and I suppose that even us younger grandkids knew that we really didn’t need to know what he had seen while discharging that weapon. He has told us bits and pieces about his downtime during the war. As far as we know my grandpa never got to a true vacation from WWII. He did not come home once during the war. He spent some time in military hospitals in the Pacific for a variety of wounds (more on that later). The majority of his downtime was spent on islands that his battalion had taken. Apparently, one of their longest stays in one place was during a terrible monsoon season where the island was quite literally flooded for a few months. They had nowhere else to go so they all had to learn to live in foot deep water. It was here that my grandpa learned to sleep standing up (which he can still do) and it was on this island that my grandpa saw many of his fellow soldiers die from a variety of diseases.
I know only one battle story that my grandpa experienced in WWII. I know it because he was nearly left for dead and my whole family exists only because of the heroism of my grandpa’s dearest friend. They were in the midst of a beach assault on a Japanese occupied island and my grandpa’s boat was coming in directly behind the infantry. When they hit the beach, the howitzer jolted and knocked my grandpa to the ground where the howitzer promptly ran him over. He was trapped underneath the howitzer, at the front of the boat, with a crushed pelvis. The commanding officer gave the command to continue onto the beach, a move that would have killed my grandpa as the howitzer would have crushed the rest of his body as it ran him over. His gun-mate refused the order and the rest of the men rushed to pull the howitzer off my grandpa and move him to safety. Grandpa can never get through the story without becoming quite emotional; however, I believe that there were some serious ramifications for the men that disobeyed the order and saved my grandpa’s life. My grandpa spent the next several months in a military hospital, recovering from the broken pelvis and when he was well, he returned to his battalion in the Pacific for at least another year of service.
Aside from staying alive, I get the impression that my grandpa’s greatest battle during the war was keeping his sanity. My grandpa always says that three things kept him sane throughout the war: 1) my grandma’s letters 2) his catholic faith and 3) the close-nit group of men from the Northwest Missouri/Iowa area that were all assigned to the same battalion. Occassionally he tells us stories of the madness that would break out in the men around him during the war. I cannot imagine living in those conditions.
After four long years my grandpa finally came home. He married my grandma and the two of them set out on establishing their farm and having a family. They had 6 children and now have 11 grandchildren of which I am the oldest. I continue to let them down on their quest for great-grandkids (I’m counting on my brother). The family farm is still alive and running due to the efforts of my grandparents and two of my uncles and their families (and in an area that is now dominated by industry run farming). My grandparents still go to church nearly everyday (they received a letter of congratulation from the pope for their 60th wedding anniversary) and now-a-days they spend a lot of time volunteering at local nursing homes and hospices as they watch their generation of friends slowly fade away. While my grandparents never became wealthy, they have been comfortable for at least 30 years. They worked their tails off to give everyone in the family the chance to get an education (neither of them finished junior high). For decades they have been a hallmark of the local community. It is always a pleasure to take a drive with my grandpa and note that nearly every car that drives by gives my grandpa the midwestern “one finger wave” (which is the index finger pointed in a waving motion from the steering wheel accompanied by a nod).
As a boy, I remember going up to the room where my grandpa kept his uniform (ribbons, purple heart and all) and putting it on and coming back downstairs to show my grandpa how nice I looked in his old uniform (which he always kept in perfect condition although he never wore it). He would always smile and tell me I looked nice and then make me promise that I would never join the army. This is the only way that I truly knew the horrors that my grandpa has seen. While he has always had the upmost respect for those that serve, he has also always longed for the day that the military would fade into history. On this memorial day weekend I think that is fitting to share my grandpa’s story and his hope to end all war.